NRL works virtually with summer students

WASHINGTON — U.S. Naval Research Laboratory mentors found a new way to keep students engaged from afar while adapting to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

NRL’s Plasma Physics Division is using their own software creation, a Python code called turboPy, to provide their high school interns an opportunity to contribute to computational physics problems, such as creating a software model to predict how an intense beam of electrons turns air into plasma.

Physicists from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s Plasma Physics Division meet virtually with student interns June 16, 2020. The division is adapting to coronavirus pandemic conditions and maintaining engagement with the students with a software creation called turboPy. U.S. Navy photo by Paul Adamson.

“We’re giving the students an opportunity to contribute to real physics code,” said Paul Adamson, research physicist. “They’ll form a team and become a real distributed software engineering group. At the same time, this is an opportunity for us to learn some new collaboration techniques.”

Adamson said computational physics problems often use common aspects to solve many different problems, such as a location grid, a clock, and rules for how things behave on the grid.

TurboPy is a framework to incorporate common items and allow researchers to focus on developing the software code for their specific experiment, similar to allowing musicians to focus on creating music, rather than having to build their instruments from scratch for each song.

“Having a framework that can deal with the basic aspects of a simulation provides great value for a lot of complex physics problems,” said Steve Richardson, research physicist and lead developer of turboPy.

“Having turboPy designed and ready to use for computational scientists will not only speed the development of new codes, but should also enhance compatibility between codes. The students will be contributing to the open source software community, and we get to try something new.”

The researchers plan to put the interns through a virtual “two-week coding boot camp,” but then let them develop their own plans for the summer, acting like a “miniature startup,” eventually helping the turboPy project toward publication in a research journal.

Their virtual work is enabled by Defense Department teleworking tools as well as upgraded NRL processes. The plan also includes one returning graduate student who will serve as an additional mentor for the high school team.

TurboPy is based on turboWAVE, a plasma simulation code developed by Dan Gordon, also a research physicist at NRL. The interns and their graduate student mentor are summer student employees of Syntek Technologies.

About the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

NRL is a scientific and engineering command dedicated to research that drives innovative advances for the Navy and Marine Corps from the seafloor to space and in the information domain. NRL headquarters is located in Washington, D.C., with major field sites in Stennis Space Center, Mississippi; Key West, Florida; and Monterey, California, and employs approximately 2,500 civilian scientists, engineers and support personnel.